Meet the Tories the left should be frightened of

Luckily for Ed Miliband, the Conservative Party is unlikely to listen to the Tories with One Nation vision.

I’ve just woken up after a trip to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. As a Labour councillor, I was something of an intruder. I went a little red at the hotel reception, mumbling apologetically that I wasn’t “actually a Tory” and feeling shell shocked at the huge numbers of powerful looking men in corporate suits. But as it turned out, one group of Conservatives were far frightening than any other. These are the "nice guys", and they pose a serious electoral threat to Labour.

This group is not a formal alliance, but they are all critical of economic liberalism. They are prepared to challenge the market when it isn’t working for people, and they have a genuine concern for the poor. They are socially conservative, and believe in family, community and tradition. They admit that 1979 brought problems as well as benefits. They are sceptical of big business wielding too much power and stick up for strivers, whether they work in the public or private sector. They believe there is such thing as society. They are, in essence, One Nation Tories.

One man I had barely heard of before the conference actually took my breath away. Guy Opperman, Conservative MP for Hexham, stood up and made a passionate call for apprenticeships, action on low wages, protection for the poor and local banking. He gave up his summer to walk from Sheffield to Scotland, talking to people about why his party was failing in the north, and his speech was clearly rooted in their concerns.  I thought woah, if that’s where the Tories are heading, Ed Miliband is going to be left without any clothes.

Jesse Norman MP, a gentle giant who is respected from all sides of the party, is better known for this position. I listened to him explain that growth – even if it does return – is not enough if it only benefits the top. He might not sign up to a living wage, but he does want to challenge corporate governance structures to make a difference. Shaun Bailey, former candidate for Hammersmith, agreed with him. In separate sessions MPs Gavin Barwell and Kris Hopkins warned about “kicking public sector workers” and expressed serious concerns that their party was not perceived to be on side with fireman and doctors. Outside parliament, ConservativeHome founder Tim Montgomerie and funder Lord Ashcroft are fighting to build a party that speaks to blue collar workers as well as white collar corporates.

The good news for Labour is that this half of the party isn’t likely to get anywhere any time soon. Economic liberals like George Osborne and John Redwood are detatched from the concerns of the country. They are to the right of the Daily Mail because they still favour the rich guy over the small guy. They believe they will be able to win over working class and inner city areas because they are in line with the polls on welfare, crime and immigration. But they need a positive vision for the country as well as a negative one. They need to speak about what they love as well as hate, what they will give as well as take. When they refuse to challenge the market or use the state, that’s very hard to do. The polling from working class, northern and inner city areas shows that they simply aren’t cutting through. 

“Losing the centre ground is our biggest threat,” says one young Conservative sitting with a group of friends in Carluccio's just outside the conference centre. “The right wingers just think we need to carry on the same way, offer a referendum on Europe and add in some stuff on strugglers and strivers and we’ll be fine.”

“People think we didn’t win (a majority) because we weren’t right wing enough,” his friend chips in, “It’s genuine. Honestly. Do they have no brain?”

If the Tories want to win in 2015, they’ll have to listen to these voices. Returning to growth is not enough if the benefits are only felt by a small number at the top. They will need to steal back the One Nation vision, and that means promoting their nicer half. Such a move would unsettle the left. Luckily for Ed Miliband, that's very unlikely. Economic liberalism still rules the Conservative party, Osborne continues unchallenged, and the centre ground is slowly slipping away.

Balloons featuring images of Chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne hang near the conference centre. Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide